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By Brian Palmer
"There's a white riot going on in Congress," Bruce Springsteen said at a Neil Young concert in California last month, just before he dedicated the title track of his new album to Newt Gingrich. "It's going to make this country less safe and less equal."
The Ghost of Tom Joad takes its inspiration and title character from John Ford's film adaptation of John Steinbeck's The Grapes of Wrath. Though it's Springsteen's bleakest (and best) album since 1982's Nebraska, it's also a whispered challenge. When ultraconservatives seem poised to steer the country to the right, it energizes Springsteen artistically: If Nebraska's stark tales of desperation were Springsteen's response to Reagan's trickle-down economics, Tom Joad is his answer to Newt's Contract With America.
Springsteen may be a rich rock star whose taxes would decrease if the Republicans got their way, but he's also a gut-level populist who believes none of us really wins unless all of us do. In a concert last month at Berkeley Community Theater, a few shows into a solo acoustic tour of small venues, Springsteen not only sang from the perspectives of the blue-collar protagonists of Tom Joad, he inhabited them--becoming a down-and-out steelworker, a Mexican immigrant or a border guard as his lyrics demanded. And if that sounds like a bit much to believe, remember: On some level, Springsteen is always playing a role, whether it's born-to-run rebel or rock 'n' roll true believer. Either he's damned mercurial or he fakes it so real that he is beyond fake.
Whatever the case, Springsteen aches with just as much empathy on the album. Musically, Tom Joad is almost all acoustic guitar and mournful harmonica, and Springsteen's voice sounds as spent and worn-out as the subjects of his songs. Like the Joad family, Springsteen's protagonists lose everything they've worked for all their lives to abstract economic forces they don't understand. Many of them resort to desperate measures--sometimes violent ones--that often have tragic consequences.
Of course, in Steinbeck's time, a job cooking methamphetamine wouldn't cost a Mexican immigrant his life, as it does in "Sinaloa Cowboys," and Springsteen's steelworkers are a far cry from Dust Bowl sharecroppers. But the implied comparison is still powerful--even if it wasn't exactly obvious to a Berkeley audience more threatened by carpal tunnel syndrome than by black lung.
Still, the profound sense of betrayal the Joads experience is a universal sentiment. As the laid-off ironworker of "Youngstown" laments, "Now, sir, you tell me the world's changed/Once I made you rich enough/Richenough to forget my name." The song is "about the people who built America," Springsteen said when he introduced it at the concert.
Springsteen's point is a dare to the ignorant. He isn't necessarily saying that somebody should do something--most of his subjects are already dead or too burned-out to care anymore. He does insist that we at least bear witness to the strangulation of the working class.
At the end of the novel The Grapes of Wrath, when Tom Joad is forced to leave his family, his mother asks him where he's going to go. "I'll be all around you in the dark," Springsteen said at the concert, quoting from the film. Or, as he sings on the album's title track: "Wherever there's somebody fightin' for a place to stand/Or a decent job or a helpin' hand/Wherever somebody's strugglin' to be free/Look in their eyes, mom, you'll see me."
As convincing as his new album might be, if Springsteen sees Joad as a kind of role model, it's the ultimate conceit. A successful rock star living in the proverbial mansion on the hill can only come so close to understanding the dispossessed.
And Springsteen hasn't seemed to believe a song can change anyone except himself in about a decade. After the chorus of "Born in the USA" was appropriated as a jingoistic Republican campaign slogan in 1984, Springsteen abandoned the political for the personal on Tunnel of Love, then pondered adulthood on Human Touch and Lucky Town.
But one of the Berkeley show's highlights was the song that probably drove Springsteen away from politics in the first place: "Born in the USA."
"I've read many times that this song has been misinterpreted," Springsteen said as introduction. "But the writer always gets the last shot." With that, he launched into a bluesy rearrangement of the song that was more angry than anthemic. Reagan stole the song from Springsteen; now Springsteen's stealing it back.
And he's learned his lesson: The only line on his new album that possibly could sell a product refers to the highway being alive tonight--but it's alive with "families sleepin' in their cars in the Southwest/No home, no job, no peace, no rest."
As Springsteen knows damn well, being on the road is an escape only if you have a home to return to. And no matter how fast you go, he implies, you'll never outrun a dead-end job in a dead-end town. Not in Newt's America, anyway.